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Cummins House

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by Dave Walsh (subscribe)
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Published July 31st 2012
Travel in time here
Cummins House

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Cummins House from the Front

It's not just the architecture of old houses that fascinates me.

I like to understand the whole context. The lives of the people who built these homes. Who lived and died in them. Even who worked in them. Their hardships and their pleasures. All of these strands contribute to a rich and complex tapestry of history in your imagination.

At Mackereth Cottage there are not many physical relics left to work with. But the stark story of an ordinary working family battling the odds to build a new life in a foreign land is nonetheless inspirational.

The original owner of Cummins House, John Morphett, lived and worked in Adelaide during the same period as George Mackereth. Both were farmers. But the difference between the lives of the two men could hardly be greater.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Coat of Arms at entry to Cummins House

Today Cummins House is testament to the spectacular success of one of SA's early settlers. This early Australian homestead built in 1842 and lavishly furnished with period items and personal effects provides many personal insights into the life of an Adelaide gentleman farmer in the 19th century.

Its beautiful gardens containing many of the original plantings are now lovingly maintained by volunteers, and are in great demand for use at weddings and formal functions.

Visiting Cummins House is like time travelling. It's an experience that transports you to an early period in colonial South Australian history

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Flowers in Cummins House Gardens

John Morphett
John Morphett was born in London in 1809, the son of a solicitor. After completing his schooling in England, he spent some time working in a counting house in Egypt where he met Colonel William Light (later Surveyor General of South Australia). While still in his twenties his imagination was captured by talk of colonising South Australia, and he was quick to invest with the South Australian Company which was formed to build the new colony.

john morphett, cummins house, adelaide, south australia
John Morphett circa 1834 - Courtesy Wikipedia and State Library of SA

After sailing to Adelaide in 1836 on the ship Cygnet he was soon playing a part in the affairs of the developing colony, and subsequently married Elizabeth Hurtle Fisher in 1838. Despite his youth he was clearly a man with some influence in the colony even then.

Morphett's investment of 81 won him a grant of 134 acres of land near Glenelg. He quickly set about planting vines, fruit and olive trees with the benefit of knowledge acquired during his time in Egypt. The farm was also used to keep cattle, sheep and horses. Business was thriving for Morphett as a land agent for the South Australian Company, and he made many large purchases on behalf of his family and others.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Clump of Aged Olive Trees

Within only a couple of years of his arrival in Adelaide, John Morphett was a Director of the South Australian Railway Company and Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, holding leading positions in a multitude of other organisations in sports and commerce.

In 1842 Morphett built the first part of Cummins house, named after the farm where his mother spent her childhood in Devonshire. He was also appointed by the Crown to assist the Governor.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Dining Room with Original Table Seating 12 People

By 1843 he was very active in politics and was appointed a member of the South Australian Legislative Council, becoming its Speaker in 1851.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
John Morphett's Study, with Original Parliamentary Papers

After more than thirty years in politics and having being knighted in 1870 Sir John retired from public life three years later. He died at home in Cummins House in 1892, and was buried in the West Terrace Cemetery.

His life is commemorated today in the naming of streets and suburbs across South Australia.

Cummins House

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Cummins House showing its Attractive Entrance Portico

Unlike Urrbrae House, Cummins House is not a mansion. It was built as a cottage, without the bold architectural features and ornate grandeur of Urrbrae.

Nevertheless Cummins House is not without style - it was designed by George Kingston the deputy Surveyor General who built the original section of Adelaide Gaol. Although the initial building design was fairly simple, extensions in 1854 added considerable flair to the external appearance. Further extensions were completed in 1906.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Entrance Portico

What is particularly striking today is the period authenticity encountered on entering the house. It is presented now much as it would have looked 150 years ago, complete with many items of original furniture, decorations and personal effects of the family. This all serves to give a realistic glimpse into the life of a wealthy early settler family.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
The Drawing Room with Beautiful Authentic Furnishings

At times it feels almost voyeuristic looking at the original dressing table displaying period items, or sitting on the ottoman sofa that was used so long ago in the drawing room. Some other items on display have been contributed by Morphett family members and the Cummins Society.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Master Bedroom with Period Clothing on Display

The children's bedrooms still contain toys of the period, while the bathroom displays a variety of personal grooming accessories. The original courtyard access to the house has now been enclosed for use as a banqueting area, while the servants rooms clustered around it are still intact and awaiting a maid to bustle in. Take particular note of the small windows in the servants' common room designed to prevent them peeking at private family activities.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
The Servants Common Room

Given the wealth of things to see within the house, be sure to set aside an hour or more to do justice to this incredible display.

Cummins House Gardens

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Tranquil Garden Setting Near the Grotto

The Cummins House Gardens provide a welcome relief to the busy displays within the house. The experience is pleasant enough just for relaxation, but keen gardeners should ensure they use the pamphlet "A Walk Among the Trees" to guide them. It gives a valuable interpretive insight to the plants on display.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Colourful Mass Plantings

On the south side of the house there is a tranquil garden area with seating and a grotto constructed by one time premier Thomas Playford. Further down the path are some colourful mass plantings which are a credit to the volunteers from West Torrens City Council who design and tend them.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Rear of Cummins House Showing 1854 Extensions

As you walk around the back of the house the attractive style of later extensions dispels the traditional homestead feel from the front. A number of quaint outbuildings are at the northern end, including a stone dairy, laundry with nearby well, and ironing room.

cummins house, john morphett, south australia, adelaide
Stone Dairy Outbuilding

Just near these outbuildings you will find a rare Ombu Tree from South America which is used to produce balsa wood. And as you complete your walk near the car park, take a pause under the mighty Pepper trees from Peru. They provide much welcome shade on a warm day, and provide a pleasant place to contemplate your journey of discovery at Cummins House.

And while you enjoy your Devonshire tea, why not ask about the next High Tea event?
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Why? See how the successful first settlers lived
When: Cummins House is open to visitors between 2pm and 4.30pm on the first and third Sunday of each month
Phone: (08) 8294 1939.
Where: Cummins House, Sheoak Ave, Novar Gardens
Cost: $10 per adult includes guided tour and Devonshire tea
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